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Five Things Learned: Toledo 51, Western Michigan 24

Rockets earn their biggest win of the year in Kalamazoo.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Appalachian State vs Toledo Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Toledo’s offense is dangerous at full potential

The Rockets opened the season by dropping 66 on a hopeless FCS program. Weeks later, the team tallied 63 on Nevada and etched 52 on Bowling Green. But in the games in between, which were all losses, Toledo’s offense failed to get into a rhythm.

Against the top record in the MAC West, Toledo’s offense finally found that groove again. The Rockets have now scored over 50 points in all four wins, while finishing with under 30 in all four losses. Toledo’s offense is ignited by its passing game, which showed extreme signs of progress since the loss to Buffalo where the quarterbacks combined for seven completions.

Mitchell Guadagni (who left the game due to injury) and Eli Peters combined for five passing touchdowns and zero interceptions in the 27-point victory. They got the receivers involved, especially the senior Cody Thompson. After being held to zero receptions for the first time in his collegiate career, Thompson separated himself from the Western Michigan defense in the end zone to finish with a trio of touchdowns on 63 yards receiving.

The running backs, which I’ll get to next, had their strongest game of the year at the right time. When combined with success through the air, this offense is finally showing signs of completeness.

Toledo needs a bit of help to return to Detroit, but if the offense continues the play-calling and execution it exhibited in Kalamazoo, this could be a dangerous team once again.

Toledo’s running backs are the x-factor

Bryant Koback’s 99 yards were the second-most by a Toledo running back this season. The most? Art Thompkins recorded 101 in the rivalry game versus Bowling Green en route to a 52-36 victory.

Although it’s vital Toledo utilizes their talented receivers to optimize the offense, strong running back performances are monumental to keeping the offense versatile and less predictable. Repetitive runs up the middle impeded the running backs’ progress against Buffalo, but Toledo was using better strategy and bouncing them to the outside more at Western Michigan.

In addition to Koback’s near-century mark, Art Thompkins added 58 yards on six carries and Shakif Seymour rushed for 48 on nine. Koback and Thompkins were able to break away for significant gains, as well. Thompkins’ 21-yard carry opened the first Toledo scoring drive, while Koback’s 40-yarder in the fourth quarter thwarted the Western Michigan comeback effort and sealed the victory.

Western Michigan’s defense had Syracuse and Michigan flashbacks

Toledo registered 515 yards on the Broncos’ defense. Western Michigan’s defense was a unit of concern back in early September, when the Broncos allowed 104 points to the Orange and Wolverines.

Then, once the Power Five foes were cleared on the schedule, Western Michigan rattled off six-straight wins. Most of the victories can be attributed to the offense, such as the 40-39 win over Miami (OH) and the 42-35 victory over Bowling Green. But with scores like this, it was only a matter of time when the defense would completely collapse to a talented offense.

The secondary was leaving receivers wide open down field, particularly in the end zone. Most of Toledo’s five touchdown passes were uncontested grabs, especially the ones by Thompson. The run defense allowed four carries of 20 yards or greater, and the Rockets averaged 7.7 yards per carry as a unit.

The inability to get to the quarterback or force a turnover also hurt the defense, as it never created necessary momentum plays.

What a debut from Kaleb Eleby

On the opening drive of the game, quarterback Jon Wassink attempted to rush for a first down, and the junior injured his right ankle while stretching across the sideline.

Wassink wouldn’t return, and Western Michigan brought in backup true freshman Kaleb Eleby in relief. Although the Broncos opted for a run-heavy offense under the quarterback without any collegiate snaps, Eleby shined in the passing game.

Hailing from the St. Louis-area, the young passer completed each of his first eight passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. His first career throw was a screen to fellow true freshman Jayden Reed, and Reed bolted 25 yards to the end zone to put the Broncos on the board. Then, Eleby threw a beautiful deep ball to Reed. With immaculate accuracy, Reed was able to snag it in and finish with a 63-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

His 100% career completion rate was broken up by a blatant drop, but Eleby still finished the night 23-of-28 with 293 yards. Two touchdowns and zero interceptions headlined the freshman’s debut. If Wassink is unable to go later in the season, the Broncos found themselves a reliable and accurate backup to lead the charge.

The MAC West race comes down to two games

Current MAC West standings:

  1. Northern Illinois, 5-3 (4-0)
  2. Western Michigan, 6-3 (4-1)
  3. Toledo, 4-4 (2-2)
  4. Eastern Michigan, 4-5 (2-3)
  5. Ball State, 3-6 (2-3)
  6. Central Michigan, 1-8 (0-5)

Toledo’s 51-24 rout of Western Michigan is the most important MAC West game up to this point. The result pulls the defending conference champions back into the chase. The Rockets still have division-leading NIU awaiting on the schedule (in DeKalb) on November 7.

Northern Illinois also travels to Kalamazoo to battle the Broncos on November 20. Assuming the MAC West champ will have two losses or fewer, these are the two can’t-miss games for the rest of the season. Toledo has plenty of momentum after this statement win, and the Rockets will have to rely on a win over NIU and one additional loss by the Huskies and Broncos alike to return to Detroit, November 30.

Western Michigan still controls its own destiny, as Toledo has two conference losses and a tiebreaker won’t come into factor if the Broncos win out (WMU would get tiebreaker over NIU). It’s a very interesting three-team race to Detroit, and both participants in Thursday night’s game are alive, despite trailing NIU in the standings.